Commentary

The hands-on approach

Typically reserved Cubs owner Todd Ricketts went Hollywood for a few days

Updated: November 4, 2010, 12:15 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

When producers called to ask the new Chicago Cubs owners to participate in "Undercover Boss," the CBS reality show in which CEOs pose incognito as rank-and-file employees in order to get an unvarnished, behind-the-scenes look at their businesses, the joke among the Ricketts family was that Tom couldn't do it.

[+] EnlargeTodd Ricketts
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastTodd Ricketts got an "Undercover" look at the day-to-day operations of Wrigley Field.

"Can't grow a beard," said Todd.

The joke about Todd could have been that a disguise probably wasn't necessary for the lowest-profile among the four Ricketts siblings and the reluctant star of this Sunday's episode.

Still, he grew a beard (in only three weeks), donned glasses and spent a week in early September cleaning bathrooms, vending hot dogs, parking cars, working on the grounds crew and manning the famous Wrigley Field scoreboard.

What did he find?

Well for one, that the guy who works the scoreboard also cleans the bathrooms.

"They're all part of the grounds crew and getting to run the scoreboard is like a gift back," Todd said.

Todd Ricketts, who in real life also owns bike shops in Highland Park and Wilmette, posed as an out-of-work roofer who won a contest to appear on a TV show and get the chance to earn a job with the Cubs based on his evaluation at the end of the week.

In the interest of having people tune in, we're not told much about what happened. But apparently Todd is so bad on the grounds crew that he gets "fired." There are also some sentimental moments from a show that is known for them, not the least of which is the ending, when the boss's identity is revealed to astonished employees who are often rewarded for their work performance or positive attitudes. (In one earlier episode, however, a cranky phone operator was sent to a class for the exceptionally rude. She quit.)

"[The Cubs] are pretty much a male-dominated world so you think it might not be as emotionally touching or have as much story as other episodes," said producer Chris Carlson. "But we were surprised to find that a lot of these guys had just as many inspirational backstories, people struggling with personal adversity."

The Cubs corner the market on adversity. And the timing of the show was admittedly awkward given the fact that Mike Quade had just taken over the floundering club for Lou Piniella.

"Our biggest concern," said Todd, "was we didn't want anything perceived that the team was not performing well and the owners were making TV shows."

The Ricketts' stipulation was that the show would not involve the baseball side of the operation, though it would have been fun seeing Todd posing as an intern for an unsuspecting Jim Hendry or as a bearded team masseuse trying to work out the knots in Carlos Zambrano.

"We just thought the team is written about every day," Todd said. "A lot of guys have their routines and bringing cameras in could be disruptive." He did have some fun thinking about the possibilities, however. "The first day, we did talk about it," he laughed. "I'm thinking, gee, what could I do? Let's see. Center field is taken, how about closer?"

Todd, who came up with the alias "Mark Dawson" (a combination of Grace and Andre), had fun playing dumb. "Who's Billy Williams?" he asked a prospective co-worker at one point. And thanks to youthful stints pouring concrete and laying roofs, he apparently took to the physical labor a lot better than bosses in other episodes. The CEO from Chiquita had to be practically carted off after a couple hours on the loading dock.

Ricketts' attitude is a big part of what endeared the family to Cubs fans from the start. These weren't some corporate wonks but rather real people, Cubs fans themselves. It comes through on the show, Carlson said, when Todd fulfills a secret wish of operating the scoreboard during a game.

"It happened to be a game they won and he got to raise the 'W' flag," Carlson said. "We caught him singing during the seventh-inning stretch and you could tell he lost himself in the moment and was a kid again, a fan having a great moment."

Great moments, of course, have been scarce for Cubs fans before and since the family took over. And this is not fantasy league. "It's real people with real families," Todd said, and he was reminded of this when his 8-year-old daughter was wistful about Mike Fontenot leaving the Cubs but told her father she was happy for him when his new team won the World Series. "For me, it's been pretty easy to stay a fan and to do what we do," he said. "We feel like we have the right method of thinking as far as building a team that's going to be competitive every year and I don't think that conflicts with any sort of fandom."

An ownership philosophy is definitely beginning to take shape.

"If you look at how we're going to do things over the next few years, and I don't know exactly how that's going to pan out, some teams in baseball go out and sign a big-name free agent and part of their logic is to sell tickets and to create some excitement around the team," Todd said. "And I think that's something that we have the luxury of being able to avoid.

"We don't have to go out and just sign Adam Dunn because Adam Dunn's name will sell tickets. If we were going to sign somebody like Adam Dunn, it would have to be because it makes sense for the long-term view of the franchise to be a playoff team every single year."

They approached the managerial search the same way, he said, resisting the urge to hire Ryne Sandberg just because he's a fan favorite.

"Quade is a bit of a risk," Todd said. "We're hiring a guy that's not necessarily the name brand or a household name for managers in Major League Baseball. But our thinking is, we don't need to hire Joe Girardi to sell tickets or create excitement around the team. Or maybe we do, but we have the luxury of just not having to give in to that. We'll see how it works out. Maybe we're totally wrong.

"But as an outsider looking in, if you took the résumés of Quade and Sandberg and took their names off of them, I think you can come to the conclusion we did. Obviously, Ryne is beloved by all of us so you want to make sure he doesn't feel he was snubbed in any way. And even now, he's a representative and I think Sandberg is a guy who we're going to continue to have a great relationship with."

The family, Todd said, has yet to have any "super-tough" decisions and he does not foresee any in the future coming down to a vote.

"I see it more as us coming to a consensus than a vote," he said. And the consensus on GM Jim Hendry, whose contract expires at the end of 2012?

"Jim is a super great guy and has really endeared himself to the family and we really like him, but part of being the general manager is you've got to perform on the field," Todd said. "I think when that time comes, it will be less about this year and what the team has done in the past and more about where are we heading. Are we heading in the right direction? And I feel pretty confident at this moment that we are."

While the Cubs hold their organizational meetings this week, Todd Ricketts reels off the names of players who have come through the club's minor league system under Hendry's regime.

"If we can keep the pipeline going, I think we'll be in really good shape," Ricketts said.

It may not end up as reality. But as always, it should be entertaining.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.